How Finnish music sounds to a foreigner

(written by Matei Gheorghiu)

Many might know that I came to Finland eight and a half years ago. Even though I got used to contemporary and classical Finnish music, I can still recall very well the first impressions I had on it when I came here back in 2007. Before I came, I had heard music by Lindberg, Aho and Kokkonen and of course, Sibelius. But what made it sound ”Finnish”? After only one year, I had already discovered some aspects of Finnish music that, to me, make it sound authentic and ”endemic”. Of course, by then and even more afterwards, my knowledge on Finnish music has expanded.

Here I will try briefly to point out 5 aspects of Finnish contemporary music that make it Finnish from the eyes of a foreigner from Romania. There are clearly lots of other features that could be mentioned, but I will point out the ones that seem the most interesting from my point of view. Of course, not all pieces have all these features. However, most Finnish pieces tend to have 2–3 of them.

Here they are:

1) Music must flow like water

No matter what, Finnish composers don’t like to stop much. You will not see Messiaen or Stravinsky–like pieces made of blocks or unrelated sections. There are rarely any fermatas that end sections followed by new beginnings. And of course, the music is always related to the previous material. Clear continuity is the key.

2) Processualism = good music

An extension of the previous section, the idea that a composer has the craft to make very smooth changes from one material to another is very catchy and considered appealing by both composers and listeners. Ligeti would have been happy to have been a Finn.

3) Music rarely truly rests

Finnish people might be shy, or might not talk much, but when they compose they like their music to be restless. For example, even if the piece is slow, with low dynamics, and static, there are still some 16-notes lurking somewhere in the background. I would actually say that often Finnish music is more fiery than cold from this point of view.

4) Finns love the low register

I remember a teacher of mine saying back home that a good composer knows when to take the heavy bass instruments out and give space to the middle and higher registers. However, many Finnish pieces rely heavily on bass and much less on the higher register. Of course, this is not a general rule, but I find it quite common. Might this be related to the love for heavy metal here in the North? When I first heard Sampo Haapamäki’s bass clarinet concerto, I was shocked that the low register was used without a break for over 20 minutes. I told him that. Later, I realized he’s not alone.

5) Even when emotional, keep distance

One thing that fascinated me about Sibelius as a teenager was that, unlike many romantic composers, he manages to bring powerful and moving moments without you feeling that he’s telling you too much about himself. I feel this is what mostly the rest of the music by Finnish composers sounds like as well; deep, profound, but keeping a lot of dignifying mystery is preferred.

If I didn’t convince you, I hope at least I made you think, or smile.


Matei GHEORGHIU ( Helsinki FI / RO)

Composer, vice chairperson for Ears Open